Self-Tanning Done Right

In This Article:

If embracing pale isn’t your idea of beauty, not to worry, with a little practice and our application tips you'll be on your way to a sun-kissed glow without the kiss of death from getting a tan by the sun.
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Our Experts Recommend

A Sunless-Tan is the ONLY Safe Tan!

It's an undisputed fact: Using a self-tanner is the only way to get a tan without putting your skin at the mercy of the sun's skin-damaging and cancer-causing UV rays. But as anyone who has used a self-tanner can tell you, achieving a uniform, bronzed glow isn't as easy as it looks. It can actually be downright tricky, especially for the uninitiated. If you don't know how to apply self-tanner you can end up with streaky lines of brown, or blotchy, orange skin.

Here's What You Need to Know Before You Start:

  • Almost all self-tanners, regardless of price, use the same ingredient (dihydroxyacetone, also known as DHA) to chemically turn the skin tan. Some self-tanners contain a greater concentration of dihydroxyacetone than others; the higher the concentration, the darker your skin will be.
  • Many newer self-tanners combine DHA with an ingredient known as erythrulose. Similar to DHA, erythrulose takes longer to work, but the bonus is your tan will likely last longer!
  • Your unique body chemistry affects how the color will look on you. Just because a self-tanner looks natural on your friend doesn't mean it's going to look natural on you.
  • You must be patient. If you plan to "tan" from head to toe, the application process can take up to a half hour or longer, and even then it may be a few more hours until you see the results.
  • Skin-care products such as AHAs, BHA, topical scrubs, Retin-A, and topical disinfectants can affect the self-tanner's action on your skin or even eliminate the color by exfoliating the surface skin cells away. It is best to avoid applying these products on the same areas and on the same evening as you apply your self-tanner.
  • Start by using a self-tanner labeled as light until you get your application technique down. This way any mistakes will be less noticeable and easier to correct.

Five Secrets to Perfecting a Beautiful Self-Tan:

  1. Apply self-tanner in the evening, but keep in mind that it can stain clothing and bedding if your skin comes in contact with fabric before the self-tanner is completely absorbed. Give the product plenty of time to dry before going to bed, and wait at least 15 minutes before getting dressed. (Wear your oldest pajamas or sweats.)
  2. Exfoliate before you apply! Self-tanners grab on to skin cells, and you may have more of these built up in some areas than others (knees, ankles, feet, elbows, and neck). You can exfoliate with a wash cloth in the shower or bath, but better yet, if you exfoliate on a regular basis your skin will always be smooth. Paula's Choice Resist Weightless Body Treatment with 2% BHA or Resist Skin Revealing Body Lotion with 10% AHA is perfect for daily use and for achieving soft, smooth skin!
  3. After showering and completely drying off, apply a thin layer of moisturizer over the areas where you will be applying self-tanner. This will help the self-tanner glide on more evenly, especially over dry areas. A little extra moisturizer over ankles, knees, and elbows can prevent those areas from looking patchy.
  4. Most people prefer to apply self-tanner while naked, but you can also wear an old bathing suit (one that you don't mind staining) to help determine where you want your tan to be. Either way, have a game plan of where you want the color to start and stop. (Do you stop at your ankles or continue down to your toes?)
  5. Wear plastic gloves when applying the self-tanner or wash your hands every few minutes. Don't wait too long or you will have strange-looking, orange palms.

Essential Self-Tanning Troubleshooting Tips:

  • Different parts of your body "pick up" self-tanner more easily than others. Some people find that their legs turn tan more easily than their arms or torso, while others find that their faces and necks change color fastest. Pay attention to the areas that tend to absorb the color most so you can adjust your application the next time around.
  • Be careful around your nose, eyes, ears, hairline, and lips. A cotton swab can help blend a thin, even amount smoothly over those areas. To keep your hair from turning color, apply a layer of conditioner over the hairline.
  • Hands can be a particularly tricky area to achieve a natural-looking tan. Apply self-tanner as you would a moisturizer, but then quickly wipe your palms off on a slightly soapy washcloth or a disposable cleansing cloth.
  • It helps to have a nail brush handy to get self-tanner off cuticles and the area between your fingers. You can also use a cotton swab dipped in cleanser, eye-makeup remover, or nail-polish remover and carefully use it to wipe around the nails and cuticle area and between your fingers.
  • Another option is to use a makeup sponge to apply self-tanner to the backs of your hands, tops of your feet, temples, and hairline. 
  • Applying self-tanner to your back? Enlist the help of your spouse or a friend. If help from another person isn't an option, purchase a wide, long-handled, sponge paintbrush from your local arts and crafts store. Just beware it will be difficult to reach all the areas and get uniform application.
  • If you make a mistake and end up with streaky or dark areas of skin, use Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% Beta Hydroxy Acid Liquid over these spots. Then, in the morning, manually exfoliate those areas with a wet washcloth, and voila: bye-bye streaks!

These application tips will go a long way to helping you achieve a natural-looking tan, but they don't come with a guarantee. It's all a matter of experimentation and finding the method that gives you the best results. The most imperative piece of advice we can leave you with is do not go overboard with self-tanner. Looking like an orange Oompa Loompa is far worse than being pale ever could be (and you don't have to be tan to have beautiful skin anyway)! For The Paula's Choice Research Team's reviews of the best self-tanners on the market, including Paula's very own SUN 365 Self-Tanning Foam, visit Beautypedia.

Learn more about what the sun is doing to your skin and how you can prevent it. See our sunscreen infographic.

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to helping you find the absolute best products for your skin, using research-based criteria to review beauty products from an honest, balanced perspective. Each member of the team was personally trained by Paula herself.

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